Members of the "Tackling Mental Health, Loneliness and Self Isolation through art, craft and wellbeing classes" project

Monday 8 March marked International Women’s Day. It is also nearly one year since the UK went into the first lockdown due to the pandemic.

COVID-19 has had different impacts on different groups, communities and neighbourhoods. It is important that we recognise the additional barriers women have faced during this time so that our response can tackle the areas in which health inequalities have been exacerbated.

People’s Health Trust’s Active Communities funded partner, Supporting Women and Activities Network (SWAN) in Norfolk, shared their experiences of how women have been impacted during the pandemic.

SWAN is an organisation delivering therapy-based arts and crafts classes and chair-based exercise classes to women experiencing mental health problems and rural isolation. The project was founded by two psychiatric nurses to address a need for a safe and supportive environment for women who feel isolated or suffer from a mental health issue.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the mental health of project members due to the usual support activities being unable to take place and added pressures of the pandemic. Due to mental health problems many project members have also experienced heightened fear about contracting COVID-19.

With the suspension of usual activities many of the women have found it difficult to seek help due to a lack of understanding from their family members.

SWAN highlighted historical challenges such as a history of women being diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ when they are actually suffering from a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression. The sexist term ‘hysterical’ is still used towards women today. Members at SWAN feel like they experience gendered stigma in their mental health due to this, alongside general stigma attached to mental health. This prevents many SWAN project members from seeking support outside of the group.

SWAN members have also found that their mental health problems have an effect on their employment opportunities. Women experience inequalities relating to jobs and income such as working in more insecure employment. Project members at SWAN have found their mental health problems create an additional barrier to employment.

SWAN have had to adapt to the pandemic to provide support to their project members in new and innovative ways. During the first lockdown the project set up a buddy system to ensure that every member was contacted by phone or Zoom for support. SWAN also shared mental health and wellbeing resources with project participants for them to use at home, such as arts and crafts DVD’s.

In terms of tackling the barriers women have faced with increased mental health problems, SWAN have been working with community groups, GPs and places of worship to increase understanding of mental health. This work has had an impact on the community, with SWAN becoming a well-known source of information and support.

Research has found that mental health issues have increased by around 8% as a result of the pandemic. SWAN, who have been working directly with communities impacted, anticipate an influx in the number of women needing support for their mental health.

Our funded partners have been at the forefront of the pandemic, supporting women through COVID-19. As we move forward it is important that projects and individuals are supported in their local communities to overcome existing barriers as well as new obstacles as a result of the pandemic.